“Up and at ‘em, sleeping beauty!”
Cora blinked into the darkness, confused as to where she was and who was talking to her. “Huh? Wha?”
The blaze of a match burned her eyes as Jasper lit a lantern. She was in his cabin, lying on a pallet on the floor near the stove. She’d insisted he take the bed the night before, flatly refusing to entertain any other suggestion. When she announced her plan to sleep either in her wagon or in the stable, where he’d slept, he put his foot down. He helped her set up the makeshift bed and string a blanket between them for privacy.
It wasn’t as comfortable as the mattress but a far sight better than the other options. Granted, it wasn’t “seemly”, but there was no one out here to see anyway. Besides, she trusted Jasper to continue his gentlemanly ways, though a small part of her almost wished he wouldn’t.
“What time is it?” she asked groggily, rubbing her eyes. A quick glance out the window showed no light in the sky whatsoever. Only the brilliant stars in a pitch-black sky.
“Time for morning chores, that’s what time it is. A farmer’s day starts early, Cora. I’ll fetch some water for coffee while you change.”
As she changed out of her thick, flannel nightgown and into her sturdy brown work dress, Cora tried to wrap her mind around how early it was. Can’t be any later than five, maybe even four. Back home, her mother would wake her around six so she could get to the laundry by seven. That had seemed early to her. So had the days Amos woke her at dawn so they could get in a long day of traveling.
By the light of a small lamp, she poured some beans into the coffee grinder, sat down and started cranking. She only closed her eyes against the brightness of the lamp for a second, just to rest them, then Jasper’s loud barking laugh startled her out of a dream of soft pillows and cozy quilts.
“Already asleep on the job? Some farmer you’ll make!”
“I’m so sorry,” she cried, frantically turning the arm of the grinder. In the dim light of the cabin, she could see the teasing glint in his eyes. Rascal!
“After a quick cup of coffee, we’ll get to work.”
As they sat sipping their coffee, Cora yawned until her toes curled. “Have you been getting up so early all this time?”
He smiled over the chipped brim of his blue enamel cup. “Yes, indeedy.”
“But I haven’t been rising much earlier than seven each morning. Why didn’t you ever wake me?”
“Usually takes me till then to get my morning chores done,” he said with a shrug. “Besides, you needed your rest.”
“As you do now, Jasper Eaton.” He frowned at her pointed look.
“I’ll be fine. And with two of us working, maybe we’ll get done sooner.”
That turned out to be a fantasy.
“Squeeze and pull at the same time,” Jasper instructed for the tenth time, yet only a dribble of milk splattered into the bucket. Once again, it took over an hour for her to coax less than a gallon of milk from Sadie. “You’ll catch on,” he insisted, grinning at her.
She wasn’t so sure but kept her opinions to herself. “What’s next?”
The sky had finally brightened enough that she could see Jasper’s discomfort. Glancing back over his shoulder, he chewed on his lip and let out a deep sigh.
“Time to muck out the stable.” Embarrassment and regret filled his voice, like he hated to ask such a duty of her. She rather hated that he asked, too. Along with milking a cow, cleaning up after one was also on her list of things she’d never done. No one had said the life of a farmer would be easy, though this chore couldn’t be much harder than running sheets through a mangle. Stinkier, yes, harder, probably not.
“Show me,” she said with determination.
No matter the job, she wanted to learn it. What a strange shift for her. Back at the laundry, when the manager told her to do something, she did it, but she never sought to learn new jobs. Now that she had her own land to farm, she would need to know as much as she could. A few weeks learning from Jasper wouldn’t give her all the skills necessary, of course, but it would be a start. Her heart squeezed at the remembrance that she’d be leaving soon.
Leading her into the stable, he handed her a pair of worn leather gloves three sizes too big and then a shovel. “I wish I could show you how to do it but…” He lifted his broken arm with a wince.
“I understand,” she said, wrinkling her nose at the smell emanating from Sadie’s stall. “Besides, how hard can it be?”
Cleaning out Sadie and Brownie’s stalls took no time at all. As she suspected, it was smelly, dirty work but no harder than her job as a laundress. In fact, working at the laundry had built up the muscles in her arms to the point that she hardly felt any strain. A sense of satisfaction settled over her, which was also new.
After dumping the muck on a compost pile behind the stable, Jasper showed her the best way to feed Brownie and Sadie. Oats, naturally.
“Doesn’t it seem wrong that we eat the same food as the livestock? Don’t bacon and eggs sound so much better than slimy ol’ oats?”
Jasper shot her a mock glare. “If you’d be quicker about these chores, maybe we’d have more time for a big breakfast like that.”
When he could no longer hold his fake scowl, his smile dazzled her. Thinking back, she hadn’t seen him smile so much since she woke up after the accident. Odd for a man with several broken bones.
Maybe he’s happier that you stayed than he let on. The thought warmed her from the tips of her toes all the way up to her cheeks, which burned hot. Thank goodness for the dim light.
“What’s next?” she asked, trying to hide her giddiness.
“Chicken coop. That’s easy enough. I expect you’ve collected eggs before, right?”
Not wanting to appear the dolt, she nodded. How hard could it be? Shove your hand under a chicken and pull out whatever is there. She shuddered at the thought of finding something other than an egg.
Jasper’s coop was small but impressive. He had built a fence by planting posts, then weaving thin branches between them. This kept the chickens contained and deterred predators. Inside sat a miniature version of his cabin, with a large door to access the interior.
Once inside the pen, she hunched over and stuck her head in the coop, trying to keep her skirt out of the muck. The acrid stench of chicken droppings filled her nostrils, bringing tears to her eyes. Just enough light leaked in through the gaps in between logs for her to see the two rows of nesting boxes, each holding a softly cooing hen.
The first chicken she stuck her hand under clucked at her but cooperated by standing up. One egg. The next chicken refused to budge, but she still managed to pull two eggs out. The next chicken pecked at her hand and squawked loudly, flapping her wings in protest.
Cora grabbed a lone egg and was about to place it carefully in her basket when something behind her let out a blood-curdling screech. Kneeling in the dirt with her head in a chicken coop and her backside high in the air left her utterly defenseless against the surprise attack.